Autoexec.bat, We Hardly Knew Ye

My tablet screen wouldn’t rotate. The position was stuck in Portrait, and pressing the Auto-Rotate icon on and off didn’t fix it. I had no idea what caused it, and a thorough search through the jungle of Settings and Application Manager just made me sweaty and full of scratches. Since 90% of the way I use the darn thing is in Landscape, this was bad, bad, bad. I was completely perplexed.

I have only had this tablet since May. My colleagues and spouse have been whispering “iPad” and other salacious ideas in my ear for years, but I left the cutting edge many years ago, I ignored it. Finally, I gave in and now I carry it around with me.  There was a time though…

Once upon a time, there were no handheld computers. You did not walk around the house looking for the special charger to plug in or with three separate devices in a stack. You wrote checks, you played cards, and you read newspapers, magazines, and books.

Once upon a time
The first computers I ever used were the UNIX mainframe systems at Berkeley when I was an undergrad. I had two Computer Science classes.  In one, I learned to write a program that mimicked one of my board games (IF NOT STANLEY STEALS TREASURE THEN DO NEXT TURN). In the other, I created a concordance for e.e. cummings poetry. To an English major, computer programming was whimsical. Someone tried to get me to play Adventure on the mainframe, which was the only non-classwork related thing students could do. “You are standing at the entrance to a cave with a bag,” it said to me. Yeah, so? I thought? Now What? What are the rules for this thing?  I always need to have a book of Rules.

In my Senior year, the English Department acquired four Osborne computers for the graduate students. These were the original “portable” computers, a revolutionary concept in 1982. The screen was five inches, bigger than a smartphone screen is today, but since it only held letters and the size was not adjustable, there was a lot of squinting. Because this was the English department, we only used them to write papers.  The only program besides MS DOS was this funky word processing software, press ^this and ^that. (Universal Ctrl-V and Ctrl-C hadn’t been invented yet).  Because I was in the honors program and had to write a sixty page paper, I was allowed to use it a few hours a week. The second thing I quickly learned was How to Print, since your genius was no good sitting in the machine. And lastly but most importantly, Save Early and Often.


Occasionally, the software would act up – five year olds these days would use the term “glitching.” One day when this happened, the Ph.D. candidate in charge that day –a frizzy-haired twig of a woman working on a feminist interpretation of symbolism in Thomas Hardy – knew what to do. She unscrewed the top of the case and pulled out the motherboard. Then she took a pencil – with a clean eraser­– she was meticulous to explain, and carefully erased smudges of dirt from the edges of the green plastic. It worked. Real English Majors know how to clean Motherboards!

When I was finishing up in Berkeley, I worked part-time for a geothermal engineering company that used Apple IIes. The wife of the owner had written an accounting program in BASIC – because there were no programs available on the market yet – so I spent the summer debugging the program to enter company data. (IF NOT ASSET CASH EQUALS LESS THAN ZERO THEN DO SUBROUTINE SALARY).  Later, when I was in MBA School at Chicago, I typed grant proposals on a brand new Macintosh for the School of Social Welfare. Professors have to crank out a dozen of these a year in order to fund their research for themselves and the stable of grad students they subsidize, so Dr. Elsie Pinkston was very quick to realize the value of Copy and Paste across grants. And Microsoft Chart!

Back then, there was a symbiosis and a rivalry between Microsoft and Apple, a healthy collegial and competitive arrangement between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They used each other’s products, they needed each other’s platforms, and apparently stole from each other and stabbed each other in the back. Allegedly.  This was before they both fought to take over the world and get rich and go off to fight malaria (Gates) or find clever ways for people to listen to music before succumbing to cancer (Jobs). It was before WYSIWYG, spreadsheets, email, search engines, phone chargers, the internet, trolling, memes, hacking or computer viruses.

When PCs came into the world, there was a startup file called an Autoexec.bat – some of you will remember. In the 1980s, as companies brought computers into the workplace, the software was limited. A reasonably savvy person who knew a little BASIC could modify the startup file as needed to fix problems without having to call Tech Support. For years, I loaded my own software at work and at home – loaded, not downloaded – everything came on disks. I was pretty good at troubleshooting up until the end of the ‘90s.

Why is It Doing That?
Today, if you have a problem, diagnosing it is a lengthy and frustrating affair. The autoexec.bat file has gone the way of the phone whose cord came out of the wall. Software uploads automatically to your devices in mysterious ways that are outside your control. When problems occur, a software upload is often the culprit, but it’s more difficult than ever to determine what uploaded, when, which version, and what programs it touched.

My screen wouldn’t rotate. So I followed the first line of inquiry – I searched the internet. We don’t even receive manuals anymore and if we did, they’re almost impossible to read through to find what you need.  Most written instruction manuals these days are merely warnings on avoiding electrocuting yourself in five languages.  It was great that Apple led the way in simplifying design to make things so easy that you didn’t need a manual, but it also means that now you don’t have one.

The Internet – the world at your fingertips! Now you have entered the wild west of tech support. Even the manufacturer’s tech support relies heavily on Support Forums wherein people who can’t spell answer detailed questions with moronic advice:

Question: My TabS2 Model SMT710 no longer rotates properly; toggling the Auto-Rotate button on and off has no effect. I have done a Factory Reset to no avail. I downloaded a Sensor and GPS Tracking program which both suggest my Accelerometer has been turned off. Any advice on how to turn it back on?

Answer: try auto-rotat buton that usally werks

I spent an hour with Samsung Chat Support. The only worse thing than diagnosing a problem with Chat is to do it on the phone. (Keep in mind, I worked decades in Customer Service, I know it is the hardest job in the world. It is still slow torture to work through a computer problem, and it has not improved in forty years.) I did the Factory Reset. I performed all the voodoo. Note, of course, that when you do a reset or restart of any kind, you lose the Chat or the Phone person you were with, so if it does not work, then you have to reinitiate the contact and start from square one.

I spent two more hours on the phone with a Concierge from the company that sold me the device, and with Samsung, acquiring the necessary ticket and procedures to send the machine in to be fixed. I owned the device for 98 days, so although the tablet was still under warranty, it was not under the 90 day “just give me a new one” warranty, it was under the “send it in to a mysterious address and hope if and when they send it back, it is permanently fixed” warranty.

I like this tablet. I write on this tablet now, almost every day. But I can’t write on it if I can’t use Landscape.  I dragged my feet over the weekend, hesitating to follow the three page instructions on how to package it up (Write your ticket number on three sides of the box). I thought,  I’ll send it on Monday.

Sunday morning, the tablet started working properly again. I have no idea why. The Sensor programs I downloaded show the sensors are working, and now I can tip it from Portrait to Landscape and back again with ease.

Voila! Wait, how did it do that?
This is the state we find ourselves. We surround ourselves with technology because we have to.  Our lives are better with it, but even if we wanted to live simpler, we would have to do so by cutting ourselves off from others who rely on the technology. If I want to have lunch with a friend, I need the technology to talk to them. And even if I just called them, I need the technology to get their phone number, and to find out where the restaurant is and when it’s open and whether it serves food I can eat and whether I can pay with the payment devices I have.

Last week, in the space of a few days, I was in diagnosising hell. My tablet screen wouldn’t auto-rotate. The wallpaper on my PC disappeared and went black. My Forge of Empires game wouldn’t let me Motivate other players, which prevented me from finishing a major quest. Quicken stopped downloading transactions and billpay reminders from one of my credit cards, but not any others. The newspaper kept sending me emails with offers for special events of interest to me but when I tried to respond, it wouldn’t recognize the login. Not to mention that my new sauna heater kept shutting off prematurely and the car brakes were shuddering. We move through the day wondering why this thing and that thing isn’t working. Some of it requires a little fix (I can fix laptop wallpaper!), some of it requires tech support, some of it requires multiple phone calls to Minnesota (a very nice sauna technician named Craig), and some of it we just throw up our hands and hope it starts working on its own.

All this technology that is supposed to help us also eats up nearly as much as time as it seems to have saved. And it has grown far beyond the average intelligent person’s capability to solve.

Apple has pulled the headphone jack out of their newest contraption and — though my understanding is so limited now– I gather that either you need to zap your brain by wearing a Bluetooth all the time (which I could never get to work consistently) or you need the special plug and the software and the certain kind of music file and….good Lord, these people have too much time on their hands!

I just want It to work.

What It?




Today’s blog is brought to you by the DailyPost suggestion: Perplexed


0 Replies to “Autoexec.bat, We Hardly Knew Ye”

    1. Printers? The I start jamming right after the warranty expires devices? So many bits and pieces to not work. The poor performance of printers is what has propelled the world into paperlessness. Thank you horrible printer devices for saving so many trees!

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